Aquaman is the sixth entry in the DC extended universe and the big year-end fantasy film of 2018. It follows a year full of big and successful superhero films so definitely faces an uphill task in differentiating itself.
Let’s get the bad out of the way first. Aquaman’s origin story is generic and full of cliché’s that rarely surprise or delight. The film is a mix of genres and borrows heavily from film’s that have come before as well as the standard hero’s journey template. The only freshness in narrative comes from a middle act that morphs from superhero story into an adventure/treasure hunt. It does not help that dialog is occasionally very cheesy and sometimes even cringe-worthy. However, there are some strong character beats and genuinely hilarious moments. The film maintains a steady pace and is consistently entertaining.
Jason Momoa is Arthur Curry, the titular hero who must embrace his destiny. He has charm and machismo even if his dialogue occasionally feels clunky. Amber Heard, Patrick Wilson, Willem Dafoe and Nicole Kidman round out the supporting cast. These are all fine actors doing well with whatever material they have. Unfortunately, the writing lacks the imagination to elevate them beyond their archetypes and develop them into three-dimensional characters. Motivations are not always clear and while they all get some big and interesting moments, there was potential to accomplish a lot more here.
Where Aquaman succeeds greatly is its world building and spectacular visuals. If the narrative is generic, the world is anything but. This is among the most imaginative and fully realized world’s that has graced the big screen in years. James Wan takes the opportunity offered by this character to dive into the deep end and offer overwhelming scale. Atlantis feels vibrant and alive, with its many kingdoms and civilizations. The attention to detail on creatures is impeccable. The film leaves you in awe of this underwater fantasy land and I want to see and explore so much more of it in the inevitable sequels.
As evidenced in Furious Seven, James Wan is also no stranger to creating and executing high octane and thrilling action sequences. Whether underwater or on land, the action is always compelling and enjoyable. The action beats also play to Jason Momoa’s benefit, as it is more believable to see someone of his size and presence deliver smack downs on baddies. Amber Heard and Nicole Kidman both get some solid set pieces and make a mark too. The world of Atlantis and the action beats all dazzle and are beautiful on a giant IMAX screen.
Aquaman’s narrative and characters deserved better, but it is uncompromising in its world building and scale. The sheer visual inventiveness and world on display make the film worth watching on the biggest screen you can find. This is the film’s differentiating factor. If the story and characters had the same amount of creativeness and boldness as did the films’ visuals, Aquaman would have been a great superhero film. In its current form, it will have to settle for merely being a good one.